While it went almost unheralded Friday, Kremen & Co temporarily backed away from their earlier position that driving a road into the forest on Squalicum Mountain, to serve new development in the Lake Whatcom watershed, had no environmental significance.
Faced with overwhelming and unanimous opposition from the City of Bellingham, Whatcom County withdrew their earlier Determination of Non Significance, or DNS, and announced they would reconsider the matter and make a new determination in a few weeks. This is significant.
The State Environmental Protection Act requires a qualified official to review proposals submitted for prospective development and determine if an environmental impact statement should be done.
It remains to be seen if Kremen will allow his planning director, David Stalheim, the county's SEPA officer, to require a full environmental impact statement. More likely, Stalheim will be directed to add more fine print and paper over or ignore the inevitable impacts that will ensue.
The planning director was selected for his malleability. Stalheim serves at the pleasure of Pete Kremen. Unlike the former planning director, Hal Hart, he's not about to risk ostracism, or possibly firing, for calling a foul on his boss. He's no dummy and, with any luck, might survive Kremen. Under the right person he could do some good. He certainly understands the rules well enough to get around them.
What made the earlier DNS so preposterous was the county's adopted view that only the construction of the road need be considered. They chose to ignore the planned residences, and other development that would inevitably follow. Roads and utilities are the cutting edge of sprawl. Build them and it will come.
By way of background; some years back, growth management was enacted and counties were mandated to designate areas for future urban growth. The new law required resource lands and critical areas be protected and preserved. Rural areas were to remain to buffer forest and agricultural lands from substantial residential development.
But the landed gentry of Whatcom county had their own plans and had already laid their money down. Their plan was to turn Squalicum Mountain into thousands of new residences and estates overlooking the lake or with views of the city, the San Juan Islands and the Gulf of Georgia.
Years ago Hart, told me the folks speculating on Squalicum Mountain read like a who's who list of the county elites. And in the grand tradition of Whatcom county government, these folks were wise enough to understand the strategic importance of getting the county executive involved in the play. Early on he got his own little piece of the action. I wonder why. It would be interesting to understand how.
More recently, Vineyard Development proposed to cluster scores of new residences on several hundred acres of the mountain. And it nearly escaped the entire planning process. Laurie Caskey-Schreiber found the whole idea just so wonderful she was ready to give it the green light ostensibly upon her first hearing their plans. And she still just can't bring herself to support making the emergency moratorium on these development schemes in our rural forests permanent.
Well, a couple of the names associated with Vineyard Development, and this insignificant little road, are Secrest and Iverson. I won't attempt to explain all the title transfers it took to consolidate this land; nor hope to make understandable all the quit claim deeds between David Syre and his cousin, Gordon Iverson.
If you don't recognize the name Secrest, his is also associated with the toxic site threatening Squalicum Creek downstream.
And as I recall, Gordy Iverson's daddy gave us Sudden Valley; that jewel in the watershed polluting the other side of the lake.
With the county's help, projects like Vineyard and North Shore Estates continue to crawl up Academy Road. If Kremen keeps allowing new roads and utilities to creep into the forest, soon enough, caching, his little investment will pay off in seven digits.
But as he told us when he snuck that enormous pay raise, got caught with his hand in the cookie jar and wanted to give some back, he's not in it for the money.
What makes the county's promotion of development in the reservoir's watershed more unseemly is the way they ignore laws and interpret county codes to suit their ends. This effort is of course directed by Pete's partner in the cookie caper, that other favorite son of Whatcom Republicans, Dave McEachran. Like some demented lawyer from another planet, there seems to be little in the Growth Management Act he can't re-interpret in order to continue unmanaged growth, and keep faith with their real constituents.
There was of course the whole little scam with the original zoning on the mountain that created a gagillion five acre lots for one fat cat, and a limited area that would allow more intense development (a so called LAMIRD) just unlimited enough to include Kremen's property. This scheme was shown for what it was in court. The ruling was not insignificant.
I won't even go into the charades the county's employed to allow the extension of urban water lines, and even sewers, onto the mountain for developers like Vineyard, North Shore and, what shall we call it, how about Pete's Place.
And don't get me started on the amount of groundwater they allow to be misappropriated, in the watershed and throughout the county, water that is needed for agriculture and fish habitat, that produces sprawl instead.
A critical question all development proponents must answer in the SEPA review of their proposal's environmental significance, or insignificance, is whether the project they are currently requesting permission for isn't really just part of a larger project which should actually be the subject under review. Wouldn't you hope the county planning director could recognize a fabrication?
The law is circumvented by developers answering the question dishonestly, and the SEPA reviewer then ignoring the misrepresentation. Thus development is allowed to proceed piecemeal without being subject to comprehensive review. In the end, unfortunately for the environment, the whole is usually significantly worse than the sum of the parts.
I believe it was Syre's company that once formed scores of limited liability companies in order to exploit a similar loophole and avoid an otherwise critical review of their plans to break up and subdivide hundreds of acres of farmland on Whidby Island.
Wouldn't it be something if our local SEPA official, Mr. Stalheim, embraced the law rather than turning his back and letting developers get around it? This would not be an insignificant change. But don't hold your breath.
Don't you think the ultimate buildout of Squalicum Mountain, and its impact on Lake Whatcom, might be an important enough matter to warrant doing the work an environmental impact statement entails? Shouldn't we really understand what will happen if we keep going in this direction before we continue?
Now you know and I know, nobody in their right mind is going to build a road, develop lots and build new residences in the current economy. So what's afoot?
Well, Secrest, Iverson and whoever else has a piece of the action here will be in a good position to sell their development rights, and surely know Bellingham's interest in protecting the city's water supply. In fact, negotiations began months ago.
In the fine tradition of Chuckanut Ridge and other schemes, what better way to begin than by trying to vest as many development rights as possible before environmental restrictions are put in place? Caching!
My real hero is Stan Snapp who rightly observed, “The person who needs to justify why he’s allowed the County Planning Department under his direction to issue a determination of non-significance is County Executive Pete Kremen.”
City and county residents alike are fortunate to have seven steadfast city councilors willing to back their mayor and attorneys and lead the way on protecting the Lake Whatcom watershed.
Hopefully courage will become contagious and the county council, not just Carl Weimer, will find their voice.
When you consider who's promoting this insignificant little road, and what they've done for us in the past, you have to reflect on that often re-characterized expression about history, understanding and repetition.
It's not insignificant.